WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Democrats subjected Donald Trump’s choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency to withering questioning on Wednesday as Republicans sought to make the most of what little record he has of trying to protect the environment.
Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt arrived for his confirmation hearing before the Senate Energy and Public Works Committee being something close to a poster boy for Trump’s selection of nominees to head agencies they’ve roundly criticized — or worse — in the past.
Shortly after Pruitt took office in Oklahoma in 2011, he disbanded the unit responsible for protecting the state’s natural resources, and reassigned his staff to file more than a dozen lawsuits challenging EPA regulations.
Pruitt also joined a multi-state lawsuit opposing the Obama administration’s plan to limit planet-warming carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants, and he recently sued the EPA over its recent expansion of water bodies regulated under the Clean Water Act.
Pruitt didn’t back away from those actions Wednesday, and instead sought to portray them as necessary to protect his state and its industries from federal overreach.
“Environmental regulations should not occur in an economic vacuum,” Pruitt told the committee.
If he is confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, he said he believes the EPA “can simultaneously pursue the mutual goals of environmental protection and economic growth.”
But Senate Democrats were far from mollified.
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Rhode Island Democrat, pressed Pruitt on money he raised from energy companies like Exxon Mobil and Devon Energy, multinationals like Koch Industries, and for the corporate “dark money” raised by groups with which he is involved that are not required to disclose their donors.
Whitehouse, like most of the Democrats on the committee, illustrated the commentary under-girding his question with visual aids, in this case a detailed chart depicted the myriad companies that have contributed to the attorney general’s various political action committees and campaigns over the years.
In early January Pruitt resigned from the board of the Rule of Law Defense Fund, a Washington-based group supporting the legal agendas of GOP attorney generals that Whitehouse described the group as “a complete black hole into which at least $1 million goes.”
Pruitt declined to disclose whether the group’s donors included fossil fuel companies or utilities with regulatory issues before EPA.
Whitehouse then proceeded to needle Pruitt for explanations on his potential conflicts of interest and how donors may have influenced him.
Pruitt responded by saying he expected career professionals at the to alert him if a potential conflict of interest were to occurs in the future.
Though Whitehouse appeared unconvinced, several Republican senators praised Pruitt for his years of public service.
Throughout the four-hour hearing, GOP members of the committee repeatedly asked that letters of support for the attorney general’s nomination be entered into the record.
And so it went, Democratic body blows followed by Republican comfort and reassurances.
Sen. Edward Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, focused on Pruitt’s numerous law suits against the agency.
“You are in a position to initiate regulations that could overturn smog protections, carbon pollution protection,” Markey said. “All of your lawsuits that are on the books right now, if you don’t agree to recuse yourself, you become plaintiff, defendant, judge and jury for claims you’re bringing against the EPA.”
“I have every willingness and desire to recuse if directed to do so,” Pruitt said.
Touting himself throughout the hearing as being a prodigious stickler to the rules, Pruitt began to parse the difference between pending litigation and prospective rulemaking to the senator.
Markey interrupted him to make his point clear.
“The American people are expecting that the EPA doesn’t turn into every polluter’s ally. The only way to do that is to recuse yourself because … otherwise people are going to think it’s not just the fox guiding the henhouse. It’s the fox destroying the hen house,” the senator said.
Pruitt again said that if directed to step away from litigation he’s involved in, he would do so.
“And I’m telling you, I would start out by doing that. If you don’t do that, we’re going to have a fundamental conflict of interest that is presented by your presence as administrator of the EPA. It as simple as that,” Markey said.
As if on cue, committee chairman Sen. John Barrasso, a Wyoming Republican, offered a brief statement in support of Pruitt as he read from a letter from the Office of Government Ethics.
“We believe he is in compliance and [the office] is satisfied that all financial conflicts of interested have been identified and resolved,” Barrasso said.
Despite these reassurances, Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders gave Pruitt a vote of no confidence.
Instead, Sanders demanded Pruitt explain his position on climate science and the belief among most members of the scientific community that human activity is largely responsible for the increase in the pace of climate change.
Contradicting his own past statements on the matter, Pruitt said “I do not believe climate change is a hoax.”
Previously, and as recently as last year, Pruitt had asserted that the debate over climate change is far from settled, and that “scientists continue to disagree about the degree and extent of global warming and its connection to the actions of mankind.”
But under questioning from Sanders, Pruitt acknowledged that human activity does contribute “in some manner” to climate change.
But he would only go so far. He continued to question whether the burning of fossil fuels is the primary reason, and refused to say whether sea levels are rising.
Sanders responded by probing for a more detailed opinion from the nominee.
“My personal opinion is immaterial,” Pruitt said.
Sanders responded to the attorney general with a look of utter disbelief.
“You’re going to be head of an agency to protect the environment and your personal feelings are immaterial?” Sanders said, laughing.
Clearly growing uncomfortable, Pruitt said only that the “EPA has a very important role to perform in regulating carbon dioxide.”
With that, several more letters in support of Pruitt were entered into the record. One letter that didn’t make the cut came from a coalition of nine attorneys general opposed to Pruitt’s nomination.
The lead author of the letter, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, urged the committee to oppose the nominee, calling Pruitt openly hostile to the agency’s mission and guilty of “attacking the regulations that the EPA is charged with enforcing.”
But Republican Sen. James Inhofe defended Pruitt, a fellow Oklahoman, assuring his colleagues that his longtime friend would be a good steward of the environment, while eliminating unnecessary red tape for businesses and saving taxpayers money.